The 2014 television series Li’l Quinquin was director Bruno Dumont’s first foray into comedy, and he’s clearly gotten a taste for it: now switching almost entirely, it seems, from the austere, often even bleak dramas that so defined the earlier part of his career. Slack Bay is Dumont leaning fully into comedy in a way that at first yields some interesting results, but quickly becomes tiresome.
Set in a windswept marshland area of Northern France in 1910, the action in Slack Bay surrounds a collection of colourful characters and a local mystery. People have started disappearing, and an inept police inspector has been brought in to investigate. He’s a rather overweight chap, played with a great deal of aplomb by relative newcomer Didier Despres, and Dumont isn’t shy about using the man’s weight for comic effect. In fact, he’s so in love with the idea that he returns to it again and again… and again. And most of the humour surrounds Despres falling over. It’s broad slapstick humour, and Despres does a great job with the physical comedy, but there’s a limit to the degree to which watching him fall over is funny, and Dumont hits that limit early but doesn’t want to give up.
Dumont also clearly gave his foley artist and sound mixer strict instructions to crank certain things up to eleven, as Despres makes a number of squeaking, farty noises when he walks and when he falls over. Did I mention that he falls over a lot?
There’s more broad humour throughout Slack Bay beyond Inspector Machin, but much like this recurring gag, all of it is overplayed and exhausted in such a way that by the end you can’t help but wonder why you found it funny at first.
Dumont’s comedy is clearly in service of something else – he has long been interested in exploring the way in which people interact and human behaviour in general – and there are some interesting nods to the class divide in this area at this time. Machin is very much ‘a local’, as is Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), whose name provides the French time for the film. Ma Loute is part of the Brufort family – hard workers but also cannibals – who represent a stark contrast to the holidaying Van Peteghems – which include famous names such as Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. The Petegehems, with the exception of the young gender switching Billie (Raph) are all pretty awful and desperately in need of taking down a peg or a hundred, but as a class conflict comedy Slack Bay again doesn’t come up with the goods, in part because the locals are so ludicrously over the top and awful too.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the broadness of the subject matter, but unsurprisingly, given the director and cinematographer (Guillaume Deffontaines), Slack Bay is absolutely stunning to look at, with Defontaines’ taking advantage of the 2.35:1 frame to provide us with stunning vistas of the Northern French countryside, and frequently uses the wider frame to work in some complex blocking. But, beyond the sound design, there’s little visually done to accentuate the comedy or create it. It is intriguing and novel, though, to see beauty and absurdity so intertwined.
Not anywhere near as satisfying as Li’l Quinquin, Slack Bay far outstays its welcome early on and diminishing returns really begins to become a problem. There’s some good humour, interesting ideas and beautiful cinematography to be found within, but all of this seems somewhat exhausted within the first half an hour.